Four years ago I taught an undergraduate course on the Care of the Self. The course was based on selections from Roman Stoic texts, two of Plato’s dialogues, and from some of Michel Foucault’s late writings. Teaching this course marked my first real encounter with Stoicism. Of course, not in the sense that I hadn’t studied Stoic texts before – studying ancient philosophy is my profession –, but in the sense that for the first time these texts started talking to me beyond the narrow boundaries of historical philosophical interpretation. In other words, they started telling me something about my own way of life. I am quite confident that this was the effect of working with my students through Michel Foucault’s lectures.
In the last years of his life, before dying of a HIV related illness in 1984, Michel Foucault undertook an investigation into Greco-Roman philosophy. In 1982 he delivered a series of lectures at the Collège de France in Paris, published after his death and translated into English under the title The Hermeneutics of the Subject. These lectures may not be entirely satisfying from the viewpoint of the exactitude and rigor of his interpretation of Stoic texts. And yet they are powerful, and at least part of their power resides in the fact that Foucault started studying the ancients in order to find answers to contemporary questions, both ethical and political ones, questions concerning power and freedom, autonomy and heteronomy in the age of modernity. Through Foucault’s lectures, Stoic ethics ceased being a dead object of study to me, and rather began a form of interrogation about what Plato considered to be the most important of questions: ‘How ought we to live our life? What shall we make of ourselves?’
As the title of Foucault’s lectures makes clear, their main object of investigation is the subject. In the first lecture, Foucault articulates the guiding thesis of his research. First of all, that the main concern of ancient philosophy is the ‘care of the self’, rather than the ‘knowing yourself’ imperative. The care of the self includes both sets of theories and of practices aiming at forming specific kinds of subjects. Secondly, according to Foucault, for Greco-Roman philosophers knowledge is an activity of self-transformation, insofar as the subject ought to transform itself in order to gain access to the truth. This turn to ancient philosophy represented an element of partial discontinuity in Foucault’s own work. As he explains in an interview:
Up to that point I had conceived the problem of the relationship between the subject and games of truth in terms either of coercive practices – such as those of psychiatry and the prison system – or of theoretical and scientific games – such as the analysis of wealth, of language, and of living beings. In my lectures at the Collège de France, I tried to grasp it in terms of what may be called a practice of the self . . . .It is what one could call an ascetic practice, taking asceticism in a very general sense – in other words, not in the sense of a morality of renunciation but as an exercise of the self on the self by which one attempts to develop and transform oneself, and to attain to a certain mode of being. (‘The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom’, in M. Foucault, Ethics. Subjectivity and Truth 1997, pp. 281-282 )
In Foucault’s view there is no essence of the human being: human beings are fundamentally what they do make of themselves throughout history. In his previous research, Foucault had focused on the power relations, institutions, and discourses that constitute us as subjects, that is, that have made and make us into the kind of human beings we have become. The turn to the Stoics, on the contrary, allows Foucault to take a different angle and to analyze philosophical practices and discourses that enable us to rather constitute ourselves as subjects in an active way, that is, to shape ourselves, to transform ourselves, carving in this way a greater space for freedom. Following the French classicist Pierre Hadot’s research on this matter, Foucault paid great attention not just to Stoic arguments, but to their practices and exercises, which he called ‘technologies of the self’ and which, in his view, had a great influence on the history of Western philosophy, morality, and spirituality. These exercises are integral part of the care of the self as they are the actions by which a Stoic would purify and transform herself.
Here is how Foucault summarizes the way Stoic exercises combine with theoretical arguments to give birth to a form of knowledge that is different from a standard modern understanding of knowledge:
First it [i.e. knowledge] involves the subject changing his position, either rising to the summit of the universe to see it in its totality, or striving to descend into the heart of things. In any case, the subject cannot properly know by remaining where he is. . . Second, on the basis of this shift in the subject’s position there is the possibility of grasping both the reality and the value of things. And what is meant by “value” is the place, relations, and specific dimension of things within the world, as well as their relation to, their importance for, and their real power over the human subject insofar as he is free. Third, this spiritual knowledge involves the subject’s ability to see himself and grasp himself in his reality. It involves a kind of “self-viewing”. . . . Fourth, and finally, the effect of this knowledge on the subject is assured by the fact that the subject not only fins his freedom in it, but in his freedom he also finds a mode of being, which is one of happiness and of every perfection of which he is capable. (M. Foucault, The Hermeneutic of the Subject, New York 2005, p. 308)
What Foucault means by ‘spiritual knowledge’ does not have to do with religion or mysticism: what he means is knowledge as entailing self-transformation, both as a precondition to achieve knowledge and as its end-result. Let me analyze now three different exercises in order to see how they entail the four elements identified by Foucault, namely: 1) the subject’s change of position; 2) the evaluation of things on the basis of their reality within the kosmos; 3) self-seeing; 4) and self-transformation through the effect of knowledge:
Let us begin with the Meditation on Death, an exercise consisting in considering every of our days as our last day. Seneca gives an example of this exercise in his Letter XII:
[D]eath ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one – the order in which we each receive summons is not determined by our precedence in the register . . .Every day, therefore, should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up to the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives. (Seneca, Letter XII, in Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, translated by Robin Campbell, London 2004)
The point of the exercise is not simply that we should free ourselves from the fear of death, but also that the meditation on death provides us with a rule concerning how we ought to live our day: not wasting our time, not postponing to tomorrow the tasks we are supposed to accomplish today, not having expectations concerning tomorrow, evaluating each of our actions as we were at the point of dying. One may wonder why living every day as if it were the last should motivate us to achieve moral perfection: the thought of death could, indeed, paralyze us with fear and anxiety, or develop in us an acute sense of the meaningless of existence.
In Seneca the exercise presupposes the notion that our individual death is part of a larger rational order of things, which we ought to accept precisely because it is rational, hence good. While our death does not depend on us, what we can determine is how we ought to die and live the death and life that fate has allotted to us, for it is only this ‘how’ that is morally meaningful to us. In the exercise we are required to adopt the viewpoint of the cosmic order of things – which also orders our death – rather than our individual viewpoint. This exercise, therefore, entails all four of Foucault’s elements.
The invitation to adopt the viewpoint of universal reason is at the core of another exercise that we find both in Seneca and in Marcus Aurelius, ‘the view from above’:
One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamour of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.48, trans. Robin Hard, Oxford 2011)
The aim of this exercise is to learn to look at our own life not from the viewpoint of our subjective experience, but from a viewpoint seemingly external to us, far above, in order to be able to correctly position human existence, and therefore our own existence, within the universe. This exercise should, therefore, liberate us from perturbations, anxieties, fears, and frustration arising from the excessive centrality we attribute to our personal experiences whenever we lose the sense of our relation to the whole or we lose sight of our smallness within it.
Here, once again, one might wonder why looking at ourselves and other human beings from above should have this purifying effect on our passions. As in the case of the meditation on death, I could, for example, fall into nihilism or existential angst the moment I realize how small and insignificant my life is within the infinity of time and space. Think of the first season of True Detective: Rustin Cohle is acutely aware that human beings are less than dots in the infinite universe, but this awareness leads him to a bitter nihilism, to considering human existence as merely futile, at least until the final episode in which he rediscovers some form of rationality in the universe.
So, what is that makes ‘the view from above’ work? In Marcus Aurelius and Seneca the efficacy of this exercise presupposes two correlated notions: the first is that the cosmos is rationally ordered and that everything in it is rationally interwoven. The second is that in order to avoid perturbations we ought to look at ourselves and at what happens to us through the eyes of the cosmos. Insofar as the cosmos is rational, this also means appraising the rationality of our own place within this well organized whole. Moreover, insofar as the cosmos is rational, looking at ourselves and at the other human beings through the eye of the cosmos also means to adopt the gaze of universal reason. Finally, the more we do the exercise and acquire the habit of correctly judge our own position within the larger whole, the more we train our ruling core, hence transforming ourselves.
Let me give you the third and final example, this time from Epictetus. This is a different exercise from the two I have mentioned so far, for it requires rather that we pay attention to each and every impression we receive from the world around us:
As soon as you leave the house at break of day, examine everyone whom you see, everyone whom you hear, and answer as if under questioning. What did you see? A handsome man or a beautiful woman? Apply the rule. Does this lie within the sphere of choice, or outside it? Outside. Throw it away. What did you see? Someone grieving over the death of his child? Apply the rule. Death is something that lies outside the sphere of choice. Away with it. You met a consul? Apply the rule. What kind of thing is a consulship? One that lies outside the sphere of choice, or inside? Outside. Throw that away too, it doesn’t stand the test. Away with it; it is nothing to you. (Epictetus, Discourses 3.3.14, trans. Robin Hard, Oxford 2014)
The aim of this exercise is to train our ruling center – our rational soul – to correctly evaluate the impressions received from the world. Here, once again, a change of position of the subject is required, insofar as she has to look at impressions in a different way, by pausing on each and every one and interrogating herself concerning their nature. To correctly evaluate impressions means to correctly grasp the place they occupy in the whole and evaluate the power they have on us. Moreover, to correctly judge also means to be able to deal with our impressions ‘according to nature’. The nature of our mind is to assent only to the true and to strive only for the good. Why? Because our mind is part and parcel of universal reason, it shares its same nature, but while universal reason does not make mistakes, we do, out of ignorance and because of the influence of passions. By training our mind to correctly judge impressions, we are therefore striving to make our mind as similar as possible to cosmic reason. Hence we are striving both to knowledge and to transform ourselves.
Of course, some problems arise with Foucault’s interpretation of the Stoics when we start asking what we should mean by ‘self’ in the Stoics. When a Stoic takes care of herself, what is she taking care for? When she transforms herself through these practices, what is the self that she is transforming and what is the self that is the outcome of this transformation? Pierre Hadot, for example, criticized Foucault for misunderstanding what ‘self’ means in Stoic philosophy. Contrary to Foucault’s insistence on Stoic exercises as a form of ‘cultivation of the self’, Hadot argues, the aim of the exercises is the withdrawal in the interiority of the self, but with the ultimate goal of going beyond the individual self, of fully identifying oneself with nature. As Hadot clarifies:
The preceding remarks are not intended to be relevant only to an historical analysis of ancient philosophy. They are also an attempt at defining an ethical model which modern man (sic!) can discover in antiquity. What I am afraid of is that, by focusing his interpretation too exclusively on the culture of the self, the care of the self, and conversion toward the self – more generally, by defining his ethical model as an aesthetics of existence – M. Foucault is propounding a culture of the self which is too aesthetic. In other words, this may be a new form of Dandyism, late twentieth century style. (P. Hadot, ‘Reflections on the Idea of the “Cultivation of the Self”, in Philosophy as a Way of Life 1995, p. 211)
In other words, Hadot is worried that, by emphasizing excessively the notion of cultivation of the self, Foucault ends up interpreting Stoic exercises as entirely focused on the personal self and as articulating a form of individualism that only belongs to modernity. Moreover, he is worried that Foucault misunderstood pleasure for happiness, and that – as a consequence – his reading of the Stoics is influenced by aestheticism.
In the conclusion of this short lecture, let me try to partially defend Foucault’s position and to explain why I think that his lectures on the Stoics are relevant. Hadot is certainly right that Foucault makes mistakes of interpretation. This, however, may not be significant, because Foucault is not really doing history of philosophy in his lectures, he is rather appropriating and using some aspects of Stoic philosophy for a different purpose. The reason why he is interested in retrieving and analyzing that form of knowledge that he calls ‘spiritual’ is that he thinks that the Stoics provide us with a possible alternative ethics, an ethics that opens up a space for freedom within the network of power relations in which we are immersed. This ethics is based on the practice of fashioning ourselves, for our relationship and our actions towards others will descend from this self-fashioning.
The Stoics provide us with an example of the possibility of living one’s life and shape oneself according to the tenets and rules deriving from one’s philosophical commitments, rather than from traditional culture and society, without for this reason withdrawing from society. This has little to do with Dandyism, in spite of Foucault’s perhaps misleading use of the formula ‘aesthetics of existence’. Rather, Foucault is trying to identify in the care of the self a form of resistance, which can also allow us to play a critical role towards the society in which we live and the power relations in which we are immersed – as his lectures on parrhesia, or frankness of speech, show. Perhaps this could be exemplified through the formula “we cannot change our surroundings without also changing ourselves”. Or that we should already embody as far as possible the change we want to see in the outer world.
Foucault’s reading of the Stoics may have important flaws, but his insight into the way in which Stoic philosophy can become relevant to the way we address today the issue of power and of what we ought to make of ourselves in our relation to power has contributed to make Stoic philosophy alive again. At least for me.
This post is the transcript of Professor Arruzza’s presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference. The video of talk can be viewed here.
Cinzia Arruzza is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. Her research interests include ancient metaphysics and political thought, Plato, Aristotle, Neoplatonism, feminist theory and Marxism. She is the author of Plotinus, Ennead II.5: On What Is Potentially and What Actually (Parmenides Publishing 2015) and she is currently completing a book on tyranny in Plato’s Republic, under contract with Oxford University Press.